One of the biggest problems facing the Italian national team today is that there are relatively few players in what we ambiguously refer to as a footballer’s “prime.” That age from about 27 to 31, plus a couple more years if they’re a defender.
The even bigger problem for the Nazionale is that those few players who ought to be at their peak right now have been under-performing. Napoli fans may bemoan Lorenzo Insigne’s inconsistency for their club, but it’s better than the consistently mediocre performances he’s turned in while wearing royal blue. Marco Verratti looks annoyed that he has to actually put in more than three-quarters effort on the pitch. And you have to squint awfully hard to see a Ciro Immobile who was Capocannoniere a season ago. As for Mario Balotelli, nothing else really needs be said beyond Roberto Mancini's own words: “He’s playing at a low level.”
Mancio has come to the realisation that he cannot rely on these supposed difference-makers. Only Verratti, on the basis of sheer talent, seems to be assured of his starting spot in the squad. Since the Nations League, Mancini has increasingly relied on young players like NicolòBarella and Moise Kean, who carried the day in Italy’s first Euro qualifier against Finland. Coming off strong performances for club and country, Kean now looks increasingly like to start against Greece this weekend. And Azzurri fans can and should be excited about other young players ready to make their mark, like Federico Chiesa and NicolòZaniolo.
Like all Coaches today, Mancini faces the pressure of delivering immediate results. Unfortunately, the Italy squad of today is not quite ready to compete with the likes of Spain, England, France, and the Netherlands. The national side is just now emerging from a proper rebuilding.
An optimist not deluded by hope would say that next year’s Euros are the earliest we can expect to see the beginning of a new cycle for Italy. But for now, Mancini needs to strike a balance between giving his promising youngsters the playing time to grow without the burden of responsibility stifling them. And all the while do well enough at the Euros that he can keep his job until the 2022 World Cup.
After all, it doesn’t take too much imagination to guess that Mancini wants a future three-man midfield of Barella, Zaniolo and Brescia starlet Sandro Tonali. That line-up should be enough to make any fan salivate at the prospect of what this team could accomplish in 2022, or even 2026.
One key ingredient that Mancini knows he has to get right is where Federico Bernardeschi fits into his recipe. This week the Azzurri reportedly tested Bernardeschi both as part of a trident attack and as a midfielder behind Chiesa.
After Max Allegri started deploying Bernardeschi in a deeper role to make room for Juve’s attacking players, Mancini has clearly taken notice of the ex-Fiorentina man’s versatility. It’s certainly a huge asset to the squad, but getting the most out of him is also important. Berna has all of the attributes to become a rallying point for this Nazionale’s next cycle: the ability to score, to create and pull the strings, he has a high defensive work rate for an attacking player, and he has a winning mentality instilled by Juventus.
Mancini has hinted at a “more attacking Italy,” which could indicate Bernardeschi in midfield to open up a starting spot for Kean or Zaniolo.
The fact that Mancini has again called up both Leonardo Pavoletti and Fabio Quagliarella is indicative of his wisdom in balancing the desire to play flowing, attacking football and develop his youth against the need to win now. Quagliarella may be this year’s top scorer and beloved by all, but it’s hard to see him playing a key role in next year’s tournament at 37. Pavoletti, for his part, isn’t so much a football player as a machine that accepts crosses as inputs and, by some unknown probabilistic mechanism, occasionally converts them into goals.
Pumping crosses into the box and relying on near-quadragenarians is far from Mancini’s ideal style of play. But if his sparkling youth aren’t up to the task, he’s prepared to do whatever it takes to drag the national team into success. And that’s just what they need right about now.